tv American History TV CSPAN August 24, 2014 10:00am-11:31am EDT
our mexican-americans have clearly determined that they must do totever they help themselves. and one wordphrase above all, that characterized america and what it means and for -- not just freedom, not just liberty, not power.ealth or but the word that characterizes and ca is hope and dream promise is opportunity. the opportunity to make something of himself. [applause] next, a panel of history professors traces the evolution of history as depicted in film since the 19 nerdy. drawing examples from the films. theyists discussed how
framed the idea of slavery. they also describe changes in gender portrayals and how they have shifted into leading roles. this event is from the society of civil war historians i annual meeting. it is about 1.5 hours. >> in the past two years, three feature films whose focus is american slavery and emancipation have been released to positive and often glowing reviews. all of them were profitable. "django unchained" made 160 million dollars at the box office. "lincoln" made $182 million. "12 years a slave," made $56 million, but only cost $20 million to make. this sort of mini-upsurge has provoked a lot of debate and discussion about depictions of slavery and freedom in film and other forms of media.
in television, documentaries, and youtube shorts, different series. we are continuing the conversation today. all of our panelists are fierce scholars of the american south and of race and gender. they have also written about, reviewed, taught courses on, and consulted for films about slavery. catherine clinton has been teaching at queens university belfast since 2006, but will be coming back to the united states this fall to be a professor of u.s. history at the university of texas san antonio. she is the author of numerous books about gender, race, and the civil war, including biographies of mary todd lincoln. and harriet tubman. she has edited the diaries and memoirs of susie king taylor. professor clinton served on
advisory committees to the virginia sesquicentennial commission, and is an advisory member for ford's theater in washington, d.c. and the "civil war times." she served as historical consultant to steven spielberg's "lincoln." john inscoe is the professor of history and university professor at the university of georgia. he is the author of "mountain masters, slavery and the crisis in western north carolina," and he is the co-author of "the heart of confederate appalachia, the civil war in western north carolina." he is currently the editor of the "new georgia encyclopedia" and the outgoing secretary of the southern historical association. professor inscoe recently wrote a book entitled "expirations in
southern biography" and is working on a book on appalachia in film. brenda stevenson is professor of history at ucla, where she has served as both chair of the department of history and the intergovernmental program in african american studies. she authored the award-winning monograph "life in black and white," and "the origins of the l.a. writes," which just won a prize. her newest work, "what is slavery," will be published in 2015. she has received support from the mellon foundation, the smithsonian institution, and the american institution of university women. so clearly a group of slackers. [laughter]
we will start with john inscoe and move down the table with comments from the panel. >> thank you. i think i'm here because i teach a course on slavery in film and fiction. we start with "birth of a nation," move through the plantation melodramas of the 1930's, films like "jezebel," "the little colonel," and of course "gone with the wind." then we move onto walt disney's "song of the south." then we jump to the modern era in the 1990's, another spurt of movies about slavery with "amistad" in 1997, a lesser known film called "the journey of august king," and toni morrison's "beloved," then on up to "django unchained" and "12 years a slave."
using these films as measures of racial progress or the lack thereof in culture, hollywood in the 1930's was entrenched in the loss cause. slaves of background figures, supporting casts, often your background really serving their masters or mistresses, who for the most part are benign and well-meaning but firm and authoritative and sometimes frustrated at the ineptitude of their slaves. not much changed by 1946, when walt disney took on uncle remus in a children's film. most of you know "song of the south." despite the fact that it is banned, or at least not distributed by walt disney company in this country. it actually generated significant controversy when it came out, and shows is how much
more sensitive race had become by 1946 in the postwar era than in the 1930's. and it took until the early 1970's before it was banned, when walt disney finally gave in to pressure of its political incorrectness. a video that was smuggled to me by a former student of mine lives in japan, where it is very popular, where you can see it with japanese subtitles. that works beautifully, to look at " song of the south" with japanese subtitles. the japanese are intrigued by all things other in, " gone with the wind" as well as "song of the south." subtitles only appear when they sing. apparently they can understand the spoken voice, but when you hear the songs you need subtitles. but i think it is an interesting
film, because it is a milestone of sorts, as politically incorrect as it is. it is also the first film to take a black character and making the central character around which the plot revolves. it also makes him the most sympathetic and the wisest character. he outsmarts all the white adults in the film. nevertheless, he is a slave or ex-slave, as it may be. the film is very ambivalent about whether it is set before or after the civil war. but it is interesting to teach it with students and look at the ways in which it sometimes advances the cause as far as the prominence of slavery and putting slaves centerstage. some of the old guard assumptions about slavery, it is very comfortable in perpetuating.
by the 1950's and 1960's, hollywood was producing more socially conscious and cutting-edge films based on race. things like "pinkie," "the defiant ones," "guess who's coming to dinner," "in the heat of the night," but it steered clear of slavery in any real way. i don't really deal with "roots" or "mandingo" with students, but with these modern films from the 1990's on to the recent films we have seen last year, i want to throw out a couple things that strike me as worthy of discussion. one is the gender dimension here. i thought with this panel gender might not get much play. [laughter]
but it is interesting in these earlier films, slaves are totally desexualized. you never see slave couples, men and women together in any household contacts. they are usually asexual figures. you never see them as parents. they are supporting cast. there are also relative nonissues in "glory" and "lincoln," but several films make the plight of slate women central themes or important subplots. two of them put slave women front and center, "beloved" and "the journey of august king." it is a far lesser film, but it is one i am interested in because it is set in western north carolina. by a historical novelist who has done historical novels covering southern appalachian history. it is set in 1815, very early, and it deals with the escape of
a slave girl who was abused by her owner, who it turns out in the course of the film is also her father. and a yeoman farmer who encounters her, befriends her, and aids her in her escape. sandy newton plays the slave and jason petter place august king, the yeoman who helps her. there is a strong attraction between them that always remains chaste, but the father slash owner slash lover is determined to find her and goes to know and to have a manhunt after her. in many ways, it is the most interesting and in some ways nuanced and sophisticated treatment of class distinctions and class attitudes. not only toward slavery, but toward slaveholders. there is tremendous resentment, at a time and place in which
slavery is much more the anomaly than the norm, the mountains of carolina in the frontier era. the other is "beloved." it is a ghost story of sorts, dealing with the long-term psychic scars of slavery. set in 1873 in cincinnati, but based on the abuses only seen in brief flashbacks that are inflicted on the film's heroine, played by oprah winfrey, who when cornered by slave catchers in cincinnati murdered one of her own children and try to kill another. based on the real-life case of margaret garner in 1856 in cincinnati. in this 1873 post-emancipation period, she continues to be haunted by an adolescent version of the infant girl that she murdered. she is also played by sandy newton.
a clunky film, not a great film, but it is fascinating it was even made into a film. students read the novel and we watched parts of the film. then we come to "12 years a slave"d and even "django unchained." hardware they do so well is feature female characters who take on as much or more abuse than their male counterparts. quentin tarantino has the most macho treatment of slavery ever put on film, at least since "mandingo," a of spaghetti western and racial revenge fantasy. as far-fetched and over-the-top as on many fronts, the plot is fueled by an attempt to rescue django's much tormented late wife, played by kerry washington, which makes for the film's most poignant moments but also its absurdly happy ending,
as they blow up the plantation and write happily into the sunset. in 12 years, it is the harassment inflicted on cassidy by her master and mistress that gets far more attention in the film than in solomon northrup's narrative. this is something that has been expanded on by the screenwriters. as you well know, it earned an academy award for the actress. it is also one of the few films other than "roots" that has dramatized the separation of mothers from their children. you all remember the auctioning in which solomon himself is sold. separated from the two children. solomon tries to come for this woman who is paralyzed by grief. it also occurs to me that, as
central as these fugitive narratives are in giving us a slave voice as a primary source, on american slavery, how rare we see escape narratives as actually part of what has been translated into screen. even solomon northrup, as you know, is counted among the great narratives but is not involved in escape. his release came by legal and political machinations that happened. brad pitt sets all this in motion, of course. we never see any of it on screen, so the drama has to come from elsewhere. there is not much drama. a wagon comes up, papers are shown, he gets in the wagon, and drives off to freedom. so the only instances where we really get a slave escape are those involving women. one is that in "beloved." again, a flashback, a really
harrowing scene in which in getting ready to cross the ohio river she actually gives birth to the baby girl she will subsequently killed when the slave catchers are out to get her. and in the other, the one i mentioned already, "the journey of august king," the entire narrative is driven by the escape, the manhunt, and even so, typically hollywood, you get the name of the male protagonist, august king, rather than the slave's name, though it is much her journey as well. there are far fewer women that escape or escape alone than they were men, but we have seen very little of that translated into screen so far. one other observation, and then i will turn it over to my fellow panelists. i think it is curious that white women rule the roost in these early depictions of plantation slavery in the 1930's.
patty davis in "jezebel," scarlet o'hara and her mother, the authority figures over the slaves. in "song of the south" it is an elderly widow. we have no men on the premise, no slave masters. they are absent or in the background. perhaps the most absurd example is you have a seven-year-old shirley temple who spends much of "the littlest rebel" bossing around adult slaves, which students find appalling or ludicrous, or both. only in the recent films do we have strong masters, cruel, sadistic, even demented and dominating. the michael fassbender character in "12 years a slave" and leonardo dicaprio in "django." echoing back to simon in "uncle tom's cabin," which appeared a
year before "12 years a slave." salomon north america dedicated his narrative to. beecher stowe, so he was very familiar with her novel and the impact of her novel. it makes you wonder if some of the tropes, the separation of family, the abuse of slave women, and the cruel and sadistic owners, may have been influenced in some part. not to say he did not experience this, but it makes you wonder how many elements that come through in stowe's novel a week before. so that is just an observation. i will leave it at that, and turn it over to catherine. [applause] >> thank you. i want to thank the organizers of this panel. for this opportunity to reflect. when i first began my work on the plantation south over 40
years ago, looking at the role of citation mistresses, one of my mentors insisted that i go see, and accompanied me, to see the film "mandingo" in times square in 1975, the year that was a top 10 box office hit. the scholar later pointed out to me a billboard in times square featuring an escort service -- so certainly, i was made aware in which the way films could influence attitudes. that produced in my first book a chapter called "foucault meets mandingo." launching my scholarly career amid this topic, "mandingo" was appearing in the midst of a revival of revisionist literature on slavery. it was followed by the publication of "roots," and after the 1976 publication, the
1977 miniseries on tv. this year, i supervised a thesis on the impact of "roots," not just the novel and the film and the first miniseries, the phenomenon. he was drawn to this topic because of the current spate of films and media attention on the roles of slavery in the american past. if you are into such films as "django unchained," "lincoln," "12 years a slave," and the film "belle," these have not only raise the profile of slavery in american history, but the ability of scholars and academics not just to present their work and debate colleagues and students within the campus bubble, but to reach outside the halls of the academy and discussed this with a larger public audience. this, of course, intersects with
larger questions that our role within society, about the crisis of the humanities, the frenzy among american academics to prove that they are engaged in public service and dialogue. i certainly became aware of the way in which we academics are being invited to play a role in the reception of film. during the past few decades -- i'm thinking of the campaigns to woo civil war scholars to the screenings of "cold mountain," "the conspirator," and certainly one of the best gambits was to include scholars on screen as extras in "the killer angels." even if we are brought on board as advisors, we may still have critical and crucial contributions to the debate over screening slavery. many of my colleagues had strident objections to the presentation of blacks on screen in "lincoln," or interpretations of slavery by inclusion or omission of the african-american presence. i was very impressed with the film myself.
i know it had limitations. i was nevertheless overwhelmed by its artistry, particularly its impact. disclosure, i did do consulting, on costumes, mainly. i did meet with sally field, who was interested in someone more obsessed with mary lincoln than she was. i would have appreciated more complexity in the roles of the two african-americans with whom lincoln had the most contact during his years in the white house. but i thought the filmmakers did a powerful job in this portrait of racial dynamics within the walls of the executive mansion. as i discussed during an interview for "civil war times," though of course the link of our discussion was cut to fit the magazine, i remember defending tony kushner, who can certainly defend himself. but i was talking about the difficulty of a screenwriter
squeezing everything in, which historians often don't take into account. i did a very brief stint trying to write for the very small screen, pitching and being hired to write made-for-tv movies during the 1990's. what i learned was how collaborative the film business was, how challenging and impossible it is to protect any artistic vision, a lot less historical accuracy or even authenticity. but eric rightly pointed out that we face constraints in our own work as writers. we cannot complain to critics who take us to task, saying we had to leave things out. the contraband camp scenes from the film that remains on the cutting room floor of the lincoln project do not, i know, excuse the absence of opportunities for exploring the african-american presence in washington during 1865. but i would say the arc of the film's narrative creates complications which most historians have never contemplated or finessed. how many of us would like our man is good to go through a focus group?
if you think that is what a peer reviewed manuscript, you are very naïve. it is a much more difficult ordeal. i have participated in roundtables and debates informally. i think all discussions contributory seeking more and better interpretations of the complexities of race within our larger culture, as well as on screen. i must confess that social media has also had a powerful influence on me, when i found myself embedded in a debate over interpreting "django" in a conversation with two scholars. i was enlightened and enraged when they debated the merits of tarantino's film. i have written a review which appreciates the 2012 film "abraham lincoln, vampire hunter," taking it at face value. i found the 3-d distracting, but
the narrative was compelling in slaveholders being portrayed as bloodsuckers who drained the life out of enslaved persons to promote their unholy empire. [laughter] of course, i would have a special weakness for any film which fantasizes about union victory at gettysburg as a conurbation of two women, but he did not boast, as tarantino did, of the truth of his screen portrayal of slavery. on balance, i was not taken with tarantino's cinematic mashup. for those of us who know "mandingo," it is a frame by frame freakish amount. the film did include some insights. german slave catcher, german-speaking concubine, couples reuniting. i could go on and on.
but this would be measured against the phantasmagorical, especially the torture from "the bridge on the river kwai" introduced into the antebellum landscape. but this landscape had a 400 and $5 million worldwide box office -- $425 million worldwide box office, compared to "daughters in the dust," widget $1.6 million in sales. we need to think about the ways in which multi-plex is a complex thing influencing the historical imagination. for many of us sitting in this room, the topic of slavery has been part of our scholarly work and imagination for decades. yet does any occasion creepy kind of public engagement that the film "12 years a slave" has engendered? not with the academy, but with ordinary people in everyday life?
those involved in lincoln studies, even we were taken by surprise by the mass outpouring of public interest following daniel day-lewis' magisterial portrayal of the 16th president. i endlessly debated the opening scene in "lincoln," with that that was a great sleight of cinematic hand. i am a fan of the anachronistic moment when the really fantastic british actor repeats lincoln's words back to him from the gettysburg address. after an exchange listed from a meeting lincoln had with black soldiers in the executive mansion a year before. from the pages of the "new york times," to civil war history, accuracy, authenticity, value, over african-american issues has been widely discussed.
the blogosphere has been igniting with controversy and commentary discussing solomon northrup. but no one has been showcased like lupita nyong'o, who outshone even steve mcqueen. this is in some ways ironic payback. during the roundtable on the film, when an artist try to inject a note of dissonance, the overwhelming interpretation of northrup as hero, she was crowded out. the actress playing patsy not only won an oscar, she has earned a showcased to project a platform for discussing african-american women in the culture. her speech to the black women in hollywood awards ceremony, available on youtube, offers a wide and full examination of her talents. in a recent review of the film
"belle," i commented on the scene in which the actress playing the lead, and 18th-century mixed-race woman raised in the home of lord somerset in being this countryside, stares into the mirror, rubbing at the face as if she might scour her collar away, a image -- color away, an image that remains long after the contrived ending. this echoes the feelings of countless girls and women. this week we mourn the loss of ruby dee, somebody who recognize the limitations and stereotypes impose on african-american actors, particularly women. she spent a lifetime struggling against boundaries. looking at her and nomadic career, she had a luminous role in "raisin in the sun," a remarkable performance in "roots," but she herself commented on the limitations imposed on her during her
five-decade-long career. only nominated for an oscar in 2008 in "american gangster." i remember her amazing interpretation of one of the wpa slave narratives. she was one of the dozen actors that contributed to the 2003 documentary "unchained memories." we can learn from her half-century of commitment to her craft that you contribute, you disseminate, you struggle with the media to put forward deep, complex and rotations. you may live to see a younger generation read rewards, and you might even live long enough to see the honoring of those who came before you, or you yourself. yesterday's plenary discussed the beguilement of the archives. i'm finding myself a cinematic anti-pessimist. i have been teaching a course on
american icons, moving my classroom from northern ireland to texas. i will find it interesting to see how students respond. i've been struck by how students of american history, particularly abroad, look to films to help them understand the american past. rather than refuting this, is important to interrogate these tales, these myths, these legends. scholars understand that history and memory are interlocking circuits of dissemination. many of us have worked so hard to convey time and place. we have at our disposal incredible films, incredible, inspirational performances which speak powerfully. screen interpretations of slavery, like so many compelling aspect of america's past, will continue to blossom with or without the academy. so those of us committed to reaching a wider audience have to make ourselves accessible,
despite reservations, and continue to pass the popcorn as well as judgment. thank you. [applause] >> we will talk about that later. [laughter] good afternoon. my opening remarks focus principally on the general contributions of "12 years a slave" in relation to other films. particularly about his portrayal of women in the film. steve mcqueen's significant contribution to slave themography through "12 years a slave" is not due to a singular step or the forward in screen depictions of slave lives, schematically, or in characterization.
his version is not notable because it is the first to render unsympathetically to the most notorious american institution. that was, after all, the point of "roots" and "amistad." neither is "12 years a slave" destined to become a cinema classic because of the heart wrenching diction of patsy, the brutalized sex slave of her master. these characterizations have been graphically demonstrated in "beloved" and "roots." likewise, crucial character elements of "12 years a slave," eliza and mistress shaw, are both found in "the courage to love."
while many were stunned to see the accurate portrayal of frustration, violence, and cruelty of slave mistresses, this was more than adequately rendered in "mandingo." sullivan himself, a striking positve image of black manhood, is a worthy protagonist, but so too were others. all these important elements of african and african-american slave life and slavery have been part of tv and movies since at least the 1970's. you heard from john earlier. steve mcqueen's "12 years a slave" is a major contribution because it probably is the first hollywood production to incorporate some version of all these characters and scenarios of seven u.s. slavery in one film.
we have not even discussed the films that depict slavery in other parts of the atlantic world. it does so, stamping the institutions and benefactors with savage brutality, physical, psychological, and sexual, leaving no room for apologies or civilized, wrenching. "12 years a slave" is a masterwork, boasting stunning cinematography, a brilliant cast, and a gut wrenching story that is moving, enraging, and eventually uplifting. still, it is a flawed and incomplete masterwork. they should come as no surprise. how could one film counter a conference of view of a 250-year-old institution involving millions of persons, to say nothing of racial and general differences, who were to reside in an ever expanding and contracting landscape encompassing hundreds of
thousands of miles? the predictable and understandable difficulty in capturing in one film this staggering array of elements that comprise seven slave life, however, is not the only problem that undermines the film as a realistic or presentation of slavery. the screenwriters, john ridley, and the director, lack insight into the intricacies of the institution, leaving telltale signs, not only in the portrayals or lack of them of a slave community, slave resistance, slave labor, and the diverse roads of enslaved women, but also accurate context in the lives of free people of color. the solomon northrups of the free north. as well as looking at the farmer who was not very wealthy. that is, epps.
as a result, the audience is left to believe mistakenly that slaves on various plantations and farms on which solomon lived did not have close ties to one another or function as community units, that slave resistance was rare, and experience was largely confined to the actions of men, and that free men and women in the antebellum north where free and equal to white neighbors. the effect of these omissions in this film, -- this important first person account of slavery demands, and catherine, you have served as a consultant for films. they did not use a historical consultant on the film at all. so yes, i will slam him. [laughter] solomon northrup's autobiography
offers a rich palette of seven slave womanhood. how well does steve mcqueen cast this? nothrup first encounters eliza and her children, who epitomized a loss so many slave women and their young endured through sale. eliza believes that her sexual relationship with her owner would protect her and her family, since he promised to free all of them. instead, she and her children are sold separately and she is not able to see them again. she mourned her loss is bitterly through the beginning of the saga, as well as in the film adaptation. in the movie version, eliza becomes a symbol of the devastating impact slavery had on african-american social life and identity. the director deplores it as one response to slavery that solomon rejects.
she is able to move past her losses for the hopeful day of freedom that solomon is determined to see again. the long-suffering slave mother is a reality of black womanhood that has been captured repeatedly on film. "roots," "beloved," frame depictions assess personal and familiar devastation. screenwriters and directors have employed heart-wrenching scenes of the loss of slave children experienced by slave mothers and fathers. to convey to their audiences the psychological cruelty of the institution, rivaling scenes of sadistic whipping such as that
in "roots," and the whipping to death of the fugitive slave woman whose baby has to be delivered postmortem. indeed, the only image of enslaved women in the post-"roots" year at that describes the beleaguered slave mother is that as the sexualized slave woman. most particularly in "roots," "beloved," "the courage to love," "american scandal," "mandingo," and "queen." notably, the mother and concubine protagonists are often invested in one character, as in the case of eliza. this produces a multiple-victim
image of slave womahood. northrop sees it only as a victim. "the queen" does not. in the other films that have dramatically taken on african-american slavery, the concubine remains the most important character. consider the roles of enslaved women in films from the 2012-2013 season. in "lincoln," the quadroon concubine of fqamed abolitionist thaddeus stevens, and another concubine, are the only women of color characters. virtually all of the enslaved women in quentin tarantino's film are concubines or prostitutes.
although these portrayals of slave women serve as much-needed recovery, he still adopts the favorite trope as the black woman being sexually bound to powerful men. eliza is the film's only kind to bind. unlike solomon northrup's narrative, all the slave woman in mcqueen's film are concubines. there is eliza, patsy, and harriet shaw. there is some merit in the inclusion of the stories in any realistic film about slavery. most girls and women, after all, where sexually harassed and abused. but this abuse did not define their lives.
this point is one mcqueen fails to make, for he offers no additional images of bondswomen's lives, nor multidimensional views of the concubines. northrup realized they often succeeded in having a life beyond the lash and their masters and mistresses. solomon emphasized their ability to experience joy inside the myriad forms of abuse they suffered, and resistance strategies. why doesn't mcqueen? thank you. [applause] >> thank you so much. now we have a little time, i think, if you all would like to discuss amongst yourselves or respond to elements of each other's comments?
>> i didn't like "lincoln the vampire slayer," because while it does suggest slaveholders are bloodsucking, it also only portrays slaves as vampire meat. there's nothing else they do. they are just kind of goofy and hang around and don't know they are about to be devoured. that's them. i thought that was ridiculous. even more ridiculous, that they were just going into the plantation home and ending up being sucked to death. [laughter] sorry. my husband loved it, though. and i absolutely hated it. [laughter]
>> i still think it is -- i know tony kushner was crushed to have this film, the year before his film, because he wanted to be able to say that his film was the first film in 40 years to look at him again. but at the same time, if you really believe that " abraham lincoln vampire hunter was about lincoln, i see it as a film about legends and fantasies. this young, eastern european director using the trope of american history. he hit something i found really enjoyable most of the time. i think part of it, even "abraham lincoln vampire hunter" got people discussing. much of the time, i say it gives us the opportunity, the npr moment where they say, is it accurate, inaccurate?
of course movies are not meant to be accurate. is it authentic? is the director, and i'm glad you brought up steve mcqueen, if the director projects a certain vision for his film and wants to defend it, we can debate it. but my greatest concern with steve mcqueen is i was living in the u.k. k and kept hearing him on interviews before the film came out. he would say, "it is a film about love." and i was sort of ok with that until i listened to the rest of the interview. it was not a film about northrup, he claimed. it was about patsy. i went, let's have a timeout. i don't think i'm addressing that as a scholar. i'm addressing that as a feminist. he also said he believed the role of the planter was, he was
the most evil character in the film. he is quoted as saying that. because it is the banality of evil argument. however, both of those things allow us as scholars or commentators to come in and critique. so anything that allows that ability, thank you, filmmakers, for being so fantastic in your claims and so we can jump on and make claims these are not good. you said there were times when a lot of films came out, and then no films for a while. do you think a bad film should not have been made? >> i do. >> you are from l.a. how can you think that? [laughter]
>> that's how i see that. >> that is a business town. >> diva queen is an interesting person because he does a couple things i thought were annoying. one, he denies that people have done indie films on slavery before. i saw, on the panel with the actors and writer and all that, he said repeatedly, this is the first time a film like this has ever been made, the first time we are really looking at slavery. i said, what happened to all the others? he would completely deny that anyone has ever done anything worthwhile seeing until this film. second, he repeatedly said that no one except someone from britain could do this film. and no one but a black woman not born in the u.s. could play patsy, which is ridiculous as well.
because he didn't do his research and did not have a historian work with them, he was a repeatedly that the story was a love story. stop. it was not. he was crazy, he was brutal, on the frontier working his slaves hard to make it, and so he was sadistic. this doesn't have anything to do with love. he really slipped back in time in terms of looking at these relationships across the racial line when he sees it as a love relationship. though thankfully it does not come across that way in the film. >> there was, a piece about a woman who was tortured -- >> we all have historical examples. part of it, when you put a film together.
i would like to say i did feel that his film was an artistic achievement. >> i do, too. >> it was amazing, and i will be showing it to students. at the same time, when you mentioned the box office issue, i found many of my friends saying, can i go to see this, will it upset me too much? i said, you will be upset, you must go to see it. it was interesting people were questioning, when they will go see arnold and people like that. i will say on "django" that it was interesting in terms -- that samuel jackson did the most amazing job. who knew it was him when he first saw the film? but he was never singled out, never featured, because of the political incorrectness of the role he played.
the politics, back to the director, quentin tarantino said there was no film before that had ever dealt with slavery the way he did, and he particularly went after "roots." he was in a way saying that that was a soap opera, and now i'm doing the real thing. all these allow us to debate it. not in terms of film, but in terms of popular perceptions. >> i don't think "django unchained" is about slavery. it is a fantasy. i could not find one grain of reality in the film that dealt with slavery at all. i look at it and laughed at it, but it was really funny and interesting. the costumes were nice. but for me it was not a film about slavery at all. i know tarantino was upset because historians said it was not about slavery, and he seemed to be upset when steve mcqueen won for best picture.
i do think, as i said, that "12 years a slave" is a masterwork. without a doubt, it is an incredible film and achievement. but nothing's perfect. i look particularly at the way he deals with women, because in solomon northrup's narrative, if we go by the narrative, it is clear the way which patsy is depicted. he doesn't mention love. love is not part of it. he is talking about a man who owns her body, who wants to own her soul, and feels he is right to do so and acts accordingly. the earlier films you talk about, john, i teach a class on slave narrative novel and film. i look at the early "uncle tom's cabin," for example, and some of the other ones.
but i have forgotten. i forgot the shirley temple version of it. i have seen "song of the south." i am going to include those when i teach in the fall. fantastic. >> it is interesting to me that they raise no hackles, nobody. think about the lost cause, the nostalgia of slavery being a southern thing by the early 20th century. it was an american thing, and hollywood had no qualms about treating them as classics and making them box office hits. there was some controversy with " birth of a nation" and "gone with the wind," but it was a drop in the bucket compared to the great acclaim and popularity that they enjoyed over the years.
that is something. >> we keep doing "uncle tom's cabin." it has been done at least three times. so i wonder now, given -- >> it has been done more. >> probably. after "12 years a slave," it would be interesting to see "uncle tom's cabin" done again. he does dedicate his book to harry beecher stowe, solomon northrup. and harriet beecher so defends her book in the document that comes the year after, she cites him, saying this is the red river in louisiana i am speaking about. there is that connective tissue between the two of them. >> another thing "12 years a slave" does, we see slaves working. >> yes, we do. >> in the cotton fields --
>> you have got to see it. does anybody in the audience know that film? it is a fabulous film. it was not a big box office film at all, but it is magnificent. >> they are harvesting cotton in early april in "gone with the wind." [laughter] >> it is much more cinematic harvest it than plant it. >> when you see that edwin epps only has eight slaves, including solomon northrup, you see how the film is a little off. his house is on the national registry. >> is it on the red river in louisiana? >> i cannot pronounce it correctly. it is in that parish, but it's a
small tin-roofed house. so we lose this sense of why epps is really pushing his slaves so hard. because he is on the frontier, on the sugar-cotton frontier. he has a few slaves. his first home is owned by his wife's uncle, so he's a man on the make, the yeoman farmer trying to become a planter. that's a really interesting part of the story that we miss. we see him, the planter, he has everything. people would say, therefore, whatever. but we miss out on this guy who we do see as a crazy person, he's also pushing everyone beyond recognition of what is
humanity to produce all this cotton so he can move up to where he is. >> we rarely see small slaveholders. "journey of august king." >> i did not know that film. i will definitely see it. >> you can also see "the skin game," but make sure you see the correct version. if your students look up the french one, it will not work well. [laughter] >> i am not losing tenure over that. [laughter] >> seems like this would be a good time to turn to the audience for questions. if you have a question, please raise your hand. yes? here comes the mic. >> from missouri state university. to pick up on your comment about small slaveholders, one film i have not heard mentioned yet is "ride with the devil," ang lee's film.
one of the most interesting characters is a spy. i was wondering your thoughts on that are presentation of slavery. >> i have not seen that film, but i will go see it next week. "ride with the devil?" >> i have taught it in northern ireland. they love it. so i have seen it. it is about why one is fighting the war. >> the missouri-kansas frontier. >> you have the ex-slave with his master on the battlefront. it's a very complicated, interesting tale. ang lee is telling it with his vision of the war, which is equally powerful. we can come up with 20 more great titles.
"the beguiled," clint eastwood film. more women than men, like it should be. there aren't enough parts for women, enough roles. you mention "ride with the devil." i'm always refracting through looking at the roles of women. i thought jewel was a particularly weak character. the actress who played. i often think, looking at film, here we want a big screen we , want the kids to come in. i have written about "belle," trying to get heaving bosoms and young teenagers in to see a mixed-race austen. >> you should see "pride and prejudice" and then "belle."
>> these filmmakers are much like the publishers today. what is the state of the business? what is its future? can we attract people to it? i think it is good for us to be critical. making period is very expensive. film makers don't like it. television doesn't like it. if someone comes to you saying we want to do a reality show set in a southern scene, you might just say great. because a part of it is, anything that gets a debate out there -- my son came up with an idea a few years ago that we should take "plantation" to hollywood and say real housewives of the old south. >> that would be cool. >> i know. at the same time, we joke. i still say, i am serious about it, the debate.
the mel gibson film -- "the patriot." >> we all hate it. >> but, at the same time, you are sitting there and these freshmen come in -- why are you here? what is your interest? they saw a film. part of it is to get people excited about the past even if it is not our past, even if it is nobody's past. some fantasy past. >> a vampire past. >> this brings up the question of what constitutes a film about slavery? can you think of "ride with the devil" as a film about slavery? no. there are slaves in those films but they are very marginal and they are there almost to establish -- >> "cold mountain" had no black voices. you see a black woman drugged being carried, you see people on the road. i think that was a subconscious
"cold mountain" view of the world. we know they are there, but this is our film. >> even seeing nicole kidman taking refreshments out to the slaves but she never gets passed the porch. i think that is one of the most ludicrous scenes and the whole thing. charles frazier and with his references the slavery and the attitudes of these other mountaineers heading off to war and the role of slaves and slave holders in motivating that, i think he missed an opportunity to do more within the film. as much as i like other parts of it. >> symbolic is interesting because people deny the importance of slaves in their lives. >> that is true. >> on that level, i know you've gone through probably millions of letters. i have only gone through thousands, but i know you're gone through millions. >> i am older than you. >> she said that.
we are the same age probably. you see they often do not speak about their slaves. they have 250 slaves and there is nothing about them in there. it is an interesting, you know, view or perspective of the way in which the slaveholders sometimes saw all their lives which is when they are writing to the loved ones, really not -- and their families -- not really concerned about the slaves who are doing all these things around them. sometimes you find them writing about them all the time -- >> the code. they are also using their slaves to tell stories. we come up with hundreds of great, interesting stories. where is the film on harriet jacob, harriet tubman? we co have plenty we could write about.
where are they? when i was working in the 90's in hollywood, i was in a meeting and talking about these wonderful stories -- this was pre-"amistad." it was talking about all these great stories. i got involved in a project about richard m. johnson. they kept pushing the story of his concubine and his daughters. would it? could it? should it? at that early age, i could not bear because when you say you are consulting, you go to meetings and then the film comes out. some people do invite to look at it but my first view of "lincoln" was a premiere at gettysburg. i just close my eyes and cross my fingers. you don't know there will be -- at the same time, we have to keep trying. in the 1990's, i proposed several films as black women as protagonists and i was told the three black actresses that could carry a television film.
at that time, none of them -- their cue levels were not high enough. i introduced into my discussion the way in which i think african-american actresses have been so marginalized. to have someone like lupita come forward and be so political in her speaking about his role. you mentioned -- i would like to mention, think of the portraits of sally hemmings. the portraits of why are women, african women being portrayed by non-american-born women. it is very interesting because i think our relationship to slavery -- the legacy of slavery is still very much a part of the business of american culture which is reflected in american films. what will make money? if slavery makes money, they would make films about slavery. that is true. if presidential biopics make money, they will be making biopics.
look for van buren at your -- [laughter] >> kevin, you shared with me years ago the story of a spring slave. the true story of a missouri slave. a young girl constantly raped by her master ended up killing her master and almost gets away with it. her black slave lover ends up giving it away. it leads to a trial in missouri in the late 1850's. that is in the midst of the border tensions. it is a fascinating story. it was written as a book. you remember the screenplay turned it into not her story, but the story of her lawyer. it was turned into an atticus finch story. the lawyer was the centerpiece that was the hero. >> because the film business is bankability. you look at "12 years a slave" and you did call it a hollywood film. i am glad you did.
mcqueen says without brad pitt playing a role in it, it would not have been bankable. that kind of thing can go on and people have these wonderful films. the documentary filmmakers we know working in these areas -- you and i know -- to get a film going takes a decade of raising money. i know steven spielberg had his meeting with his earliest advisors in 2006 to make "lincoln." you see, if steven spielberg takes -- there was a writer strike and other things, but it had to do a lot with not just schedules, but it had to do with financing. >> it was going to be liam neeson playing it. >> liam neeson was reading the part and there were other people involved at that time. daniel day-lewis, i think we know inhabited that character.
>> i just want to say one more thing. it is really important when we look at these films that we also look at the film that were done early. in the 1960's, 1970's, 1980's, for example, a lot of films on slavery were actually found on public television. the first "12 years a slave," i saw on public tv. it was an early film. 1991. there was a harriet tubman film. with sicily tyson. that is there, too. there are these films available to us that should really be part of the discussion. >> oh, definitely. >> question. yes? >> i am ashley from brown university. i had a question that will build on something that you just said and mentioned.
i'm wondering if you could talk about the role medium plays. we are talking about film and i am wondering why there are not great representations of slavery in television. i am thinking particularly of the current trends for contemporary westerns. "hell on wheels," a show i like. everyone should watch them so they keep getting made. also "deadwood" where former , slaves appear, not until the third season. i am wondering why television does not seem to lend itself given that we are in the supposed renaissance of american tv with all of the money and attention going there. >> "the hatfields and the mccoys," the biggest hit and made a lot of money. it did well commercially. i take your point. i just remember watching all those made-for-tv movies, many of them dealing with the south.
"freedom road" with muhammad ali written by howard fast. a lot was made -- during the 1970's, you had a lot of these films. some of the portraits of the period i thought were very wrenching and amazing. i remember the first lynching on the small screen and thinking this is an amazing moment. at the same time, i think that when i was in the 1990's and i was often pitching stories and idea, i remember very distinctly which shocked me being told that a story that we were trying to put across was too dangerous for television because it was black and white. it was not a concubine. you were allowed to have a concubine, but not modern because anything, even in the 1990's, might offend southern advertisers. in some ways, i think television
is a medium that responds so commercially and waits for -- something happens in film and five to 10 years later it becomes ok. i have been out of the country for almost 10 years and i am noticing it in the language on television, what it is now acceptable. wait, they can say that on tv? that kind of thing >> on the other hand, used to be to get anything made with black characters historically had to be on television. thinking about maya angelou's "i know why the caged bird sings" film. it would not carry a white audience. the vernon john story would not have been done as a feature film. that was back in the 1980's. tv was a backup where you could afford to do things like that. "miss jane pittman." "roots," of course. >> i guess the last episode of the first series of "roots"
still had more viewership than any other miniseries period. that was in u.s. television history. that was really the moment. you have to think about the time in which it was done. it was after the civil rights movement. people wanted to know more about african-american history. they wanted more ability to talk about in a way that they didn't have to go and read 10 books about it or whatever. people would look at those films and it was really a moment as was the history itself in which there was a lot of discourse across the racial divide. everyone was talking about various things. so, now we have a time which is very odd in terms it is represented in television. we can something like "scandals" but we cannot have a film about matt turner. you know. it is really interesting that you can have this black woman in
the white house who in many ways is running the white house, you know. you know, the dream of sally hemings. but you cannot have, you cannot have a film about matt turner. there was a film on a small screen for pbs. we are in this odd place politically and socially with regard to race that i wouldn't know whether or not given the figures you gave about the large screen, whether or not the small screen produces or would want to take a chance on doing those kinds of films because often times the small screen does take the cue from the large-screen or vice versa. >> they were going to make a miniseries about the children of pride which was derailed by "roots." "gone with the wind" was shown
for the first time on television in the fall of 1976 in november, not on thanksgiving weekend, but another weekend. its two showings are still in the top 10 of broadcast audiences. "roots," the last episode, was higher. in terms of the dialogue and popular culture, you had "gone with the wind" rearing up again, a cultural icon. and "roots" coming along and replacing it and "the children of pride" scuttles back in into a manuscript. when are we going to get the many more complex stories to tell the both sides so we don't have the evil master and, as we know, all the mistresses were evil because we watch all these films and we see their roles. there is not any portrait that isn't stereotyped one way or the other . that is why "mandingo" has such
continuing power because it is taking "gone with the wind" and turning it inside out and making it a grand, melodramatic saga. we want to hear from more of you. >> i had to go back and see "mandingo" because i hadn't seen it since the 1970's. i thought how did that get on , television? >> we get letters from parents about the tuition they pay. >> i teach at penn state. i know that we are all interested in scholars. we want filmmakers to be interested enough. i have a hunch that the filmmakers -- they are in fact interested. the reason they want you as a consultant is they want it to be authentic. they want it to be real. when i watch a lot of these films, i am actually struck that they have a strange engagement with the historiography, but it is always a little bit off.
when i watch a film, it feels a good damaged argument. when i watch "django," i'm like, ok, this is agency. it is not what i meant. in some kind of strange way, there is something going on in popular culture that has busted open a lot of the way that we have written history. it is about breaking up a kind of canon of black politics where you have two traditions -- one is immigrationist and one is revolutionary or what have you. it came to me in james mcbride's novel where he portrays frederick douglass as a buffoon. i thought -- when watch these things -- it is what makes it feeling like it is busting a canon open.
in some ways, maybe that is a good thing but there it something about it that is really disturbing. i wanted to hear you talk about -- do you feel like -- how does it relate to the way that we write history? >> it is interesting you mention mcbride's novel. "good lord bird" that won the national book award this past year. i have not taught it yet but i had a number of former students reading it and getting in touch. it has been auctioned. it may be the next film we have on slavery. it is a 12-year-old boy disguised as a girl, taken in by john brown in kansas and follows them all the way through. we see harpers ferry and stephen douglas through the eyes of this 12-year-old boy. will smith's son is going to play it on the screen. it is going to get done.
it is interesting what they choose to option. it is a parody work that looks like it will more in the line of "django unchained." it will be interesting to see what they do with john brown on film.. >> i hate to disagree but i think if we brought filmmakers to hear our panels, to hear people talk, to hear them promote their views, don't you think there is a lot of disagreement among people? i am saying that seriously. when the filmmakers call you, they do not want the history. they will reject the scholar who doesn't give them what they want. >> that is right. >> they want -- they are engaging in their own terms. >> if someone like steve mcqueen has this idea, he put it all together. his wife found the book. he put it together.
that is a narrative and story. he has his ideas, his scenes. i was struck powerfully by spielberg having scenes in his mind telling the historians what he saw. was it possible, could it be? what was the weather at the gettysburg address? could the flag have been flying? the several hundred page screenplay gets shrunk down to a few months. there are ways. what is the question? can mary lincoln wear this or that? she was actually wearing black, she was in mourning. the larger authenticity of the film was to portray her as a vain shopaholic, someone difficult. she was not accurate. if i was someone who said no, she must wear the black otherwise it is inaccurate, i think -- i am trying to give you
concrete examples. i don't think it is quite so mean-spirited that they don't want to hear it. but i am saying most people doing period pieces have their ideas in mind, their script ready for the stamp of approval. can you pick the three things we have to eliminate or change? it depends -- many other filmmakers are amazing the way they absorb and they consider they are taking a course. i am very grateful that someone like tony did read so widely and was able to bring lincoln to life through words that i felt like i was listening in to the people i knew. he was interpreting them in ways i did not know. i think that is the sign of a gift that most of us do not have in our writing and we should try to admire these moments.
at the beginning of "12 years a slave," the opening scene, i have had more conversations with people about it. that someone can make a film so powerfully open about gender, about race, about slavery -- yet, who is going to tell you what it is about? what i am trying to get at is that it can be the power of the work of art and sometimes it is very deliberate to not have it reflect good historical practice, but to be more complex, more open-ended, and maybe even just plain wrong like when in "glory" when you have someone slashing away at watermelons. really? in massachusetts, in april?
once again at the same time, the slicing of the watermelons by the leader of african-american troops has a larger meaning. >> symbolic meaning. >> sometimes we have to let these people have their fantasies except for the vampires. >> it is a really excellent question because i think that the filmmakers i have met and the ones that write these scripts are really smart people. they're really quite intelligent, very intelligent. they are intelligent in a way that they've been trained differently than the way we have so that they are interested in the impact visually and what people hear and the overarching story or theme or thesis they want to put forward. whenever they come to historians, it is not while they are writing the work, it is already what they worked out in their mind what the opening scene looks like and the rest of it. and the story holds together
well for them what they would like to portray. the other side is working with the producers to find out whether or not they are going to finance it. you have to take into consideration what the producers want to see in this film, too. they are very collaborative. we are only one piece, a small piece of the collaboration because they do come in with this. i want to know whether or not steve mcqueen actually shot the opening sequence to "12 years a slave" which i found horrific because nowhere in -- the woman's ok using it to masturbate herself. that is totally in someone's imagination but i do know most opening sequences are not filmed by the director. there are usually companies that only do opening scenes for them and closing scenes for them. they used to just do the titles
and the credits but now they actually do the opening sequence. of course, the director has to say ok with it and the producer. i wonder if he actually himself shot that sequence because usually the opening sequences are no longer shot by the director. >> surely, he had to approve it. >> he had to check it off. i wonder if that was something that he, in terms of thinking about how the film will open, that he will open it in this way or somebody who was getting the audience drawn in. thinking about the scene like this, they have to get approval for doing this. they no longer actually have complete control over the opening sequence. >> it seems like one advantage steve mcqueen had is that he is drawing entirely on a single source, single narrative, single voice, single perspective in
which he lifts whole things out of it. he lifts things date out of the book. it is remarkable whereas steven spielberg draws on more complex, multidimensional issues and events where the input of historians, i wonder, would matter more either to steve or any director trying to do something that complex. >> i know steve mcqueen is really visually-driven. people think about his other films "hunger" and "shame," they talk about him as a brilliant visual artist. that is what is more important to him. i think spielberg is much more interested in accuracy than a lot of directors are. he is, in some ways, much more like a historian in the way in which he decides to depict something on screen that i think steve mcqueen is.
he is also about the art of making a visually-stunning film, too, or mostly along with an important story. >> recently, spielberg was given an award because his film is storytelling, it is history. i know the teaching and showing of "amistad" has been the focus of a lot of debate that i have been involved in. i point out that i remember taking my younger son to see it. the moment in the film where it is taken from the case where the -- >> they threw them overboard. >> the slaves are shackled and thrown overboard. it is one of the most visually powerful, arresting scenes. when i went to the international museum of slavery in liverpool,
they had their own version of that. it is something that -- we deal in words and we deal powerfully in telling stories, but it is something that we now in the 21st century have to grapple with. is it going to be streaming? who is going to look at it? how is it going to feel? i think we need to bring both our students and public to understand that stories can be told in many different dimensions. i think the power of some of these scenes -- maybe we can deal with clips rather than the full film. we can deal with the powerful medium of historical film. that is something that could bring slavery to a modern audience. >> that seems like an excellent place to conclude. thank you all so much for coming and thank you very much to our panelists for their very thoughtful and insightful comments. [applause]
[captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2014] [captioning performed by national captioning institute] war, ahis time in the lot of soldiers had been away from their homes for about three to four years. there had been letters home saying the farm is falling to pieces. we have patrollers in the area taking supplies from us. when are you going to come home? there is a large problem with desertions at this time. it was not from the standpoint of soldiers not wanting to go into battle. it was just their heartstrings were being pulled by their families needing them back home. imposed was a strict set of orders that deserters would sometimes be shot, definitely the punishment, there are several occurrences of this happening. about thisso low